Bringing Torah Study into the Twenty-First Century
As traditional Jews, we believe that the ancient Israelites received two sets of laws at the foot of Mount Sinai: a written Torah and an oral one. Why do we place such heavy emphasis upon the latter of these two traditions? One reason is because the contents of the oral tradition are indispensable to Jewish practice. Without the guidelines developed in the Talmud, we wouldn’t know how to observe the Shabbat or perform a proper ritual slaughter. In the simplest sense, then, we need the oral law for what it says.
But we don't only need the laws of the oral tradition - we also need their method of delivery. The “oral” law is called such for a reason, after all. Apparently, our tradition recognizes that auditory learning holds some advantages over the more conventional method – namely, receiving information straight out of a book. If this was true in 200 CE then it’s even truer in the generation of the iPod. For our fathers and mothers, studying Torah generally entailed sitting inside a Beit Midrash, poring over a Gemara or Tanach. Today, with the wealth of technology at our disposal, we have the option of expanding that definition considerably. Thanks to the internet, we are beginning to extend the frontiers of what it means to study Torah and to broaden the horizons of those who study it.
We’ve all stood behind the girl in the caf line or sat beside the guy on the bus who’s listening to a lecture while carrying out his or her daily routine. Every day a few more people experiment with this encounter of tradition and technology, emerging from the experience empowered and enriched. Each month, in fact, there are 30, 000 people visiting YUTorah.org alone. And so, the trend continues to catch. Slowly but surely, “iPod Torah” is cementing itself as a critical component of the contemporary Jewish curriculum.
To be sure, there’s a lot which we can gain by studying a sefer. On the other hand, there’s also a lot which we can gain through an audio shiur. To develop into well-rounded students of the Torah in this day and age, we probably need to make use of both methods, since both provide something unique and essential. As learning coach Dr. Anthony McCann recently advised readers of the Daily Telegraph, “Don’t think, ‘What’s my learning style?’ Instead, ask yourself, ‘What are my top three learning styles?’” In this vein, a recent study published by the Learning and Skills Research Center found that there may be as many as seventy of these “learning styles.” Thankfully, the classical mode of studying Torah seems to be thriving. Here, then, are a few reasons to give this new form of Torah study a try, if you haven’t yet:
To begin with, there’s a ton of material available online that simply can’t be accessed through other media. When congregations invite guest speakers or institutions of higher learning organize yemei iyun [days of in-depth study], lecturers often present material which they’ve never discussed elsewhere. In fact, many of the brightest teachers out there today don’t publish their material at all. Others write predominantly for academic audiences, so that the average layperson will never discover their thought unless he or she happens to be leafing through scholarly journals or old doctoral theses. Without YUTorah.org or the audio archives of Herzog College, I would never have heard of people like Rabbi Alex Israel or Dr. Yael Zeigler. What a shame that would be, because their insights are absolutely brilliant and their online material is totally understandable. I can think of about twenty other people who fall into this same category, and those are only the educators I’ve discovered so far.
Then there are the teachers who we already know and love but whom we don’t get the opportunity to listen to on a regular basis, purely due to logistical constraints. If England’s R. Jonathan Sacks or South Africa’s R. Akiva Tatz or Israel’s R. Haim Druckman or R. Yoel Bin Nun or R. Binny Lau were to visit Yeshiva University, we wouldn’t be able to find an auditorium large enough to seat all the students eager to hear them speak. For good reason; we thirst for these sages’ every word. But why limit ourselves by waiting until they’re in America (or until we’re abroad) to learn from them? Each of the rabbis mentioned has uploaded dozens of lectures online on websites such as SimpleToRemember.com and Moreshet.co.il, each one better than the next, and many covering texts of topics unexamined in their written material. Unlike our ancestors, we no longer have to cross the ocean to hear the words of Torah emanating from other continents. All we need to do is head online.
Granted, somebody who simply wants to encounter the thought of R. Sacks, for example, can just as easily pick up a copy of Covenant and Conversation. Most of us probably extract ideas from books more effectively than we do from audio recordings anyways. But if we’re as interested in the personalities as we are in their ideas, then we need to hear those personalities express themselves in their own voices every so often. So much can be communicated through inflection, tone of voice, use of pause and other rhetorical idiosyncrasies which we miss out on when we proceed straight to the written version. This is particularly true concerning the leaders of the previous generation. Somebody who’s read Halakhic Man but who’s never heard the Rav’s impeccable English pronounced in his thick, Eastern European accent has lost something invaluable in translation, I think. Black words on white pages all start to look the same after a while. To capture the color of the personality, we need to engage it directly – or at least, as directly as possible.
Then, of course, there are the purely practical considerations. Assuming you own a portable music device, loading it up with lectures is much cheaper and far less time consuming than shopping around for a good deal on the latest bestseller. There are also moments, such as at the end of a long day, when our level of focus may be better suited for a more passive mode of learning – and if we’re auditory learners, than this method may prove more effective even at other times. Of course, it’s always nice to attend lectures in person. That said, the iPod option allows you to learn what you want to learn, where you want to learn, when you want to learn, as many times as you want to learn it. No longer must our workouts, our commutes or our even our execution of everyday chores take away from our Torah learning, if we don’t want them to.
Naturally, we must be careful not to take this new technology to an extreme. Those of us in a Yeshiva environment are particularly susceptible to overdoing it, reasoning that since we can now fill our every spare second with a voice of Torah, we should. Both religiously and psychologically, real downtime, free of any external stimulation, is healthy and desirable (and if you’re not convinced, I’d be happy to recommend a few lectures on the topic!)
But in those precious moments which we do dedicate to studying Torah, let us strive to provide ourselves with an education as broad and as deep as possible. To that end, I think that the option of the audio shiur presents a very valuable opportunity, well worth trying out if you haven’t yet.
Give it a shot. You’ll be really glad that you did.